Komanoff: The Time Has Never Been More Right for a Carbon Tax (U.S. News)
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Komanoff asks: If efficiency hasn’t cut energy use, then what? (Grist)
Komanoff: Senate Bill Death = Win for Climate (The Nation)
Q&A: Charles Komanoff (Mother Jones)
The Intercept today published Christopher Ketcham’s and my essay, The Shutdown of “Luxury Emissions” Should Be at the Center of Climate Revolt. I’ve cross-posted it here to allow comments by Carbon Tax Center subscribers and readers. Let us know what you think.
— C.K., December 13, 2022
Climate disorder won’t be remedied through an orderly march of green energy. The world must also rein in consumption.
By Christopher Ketcham & Charles Komanoff ▪ Photos and captions are copied from The Intercept.
SEVEN HUNDRED SELF-DESCRIBED “climate rebels” breached the chain-link fence surrounding Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, the world’s third-busiest hub for international passenger traffic, on November 5. With bolt cutters they opened holes in the fence and poured in, some of them on bicycles, and raced across the tarmac. Others laid ladders against the 9-foot-high fence and topped it on foot.
They had to move quickly before military police, tasked with securing the airport, saw what was happening. The rebels targeted 13 private jets parked or preparing for takeoff, at least two belonging to NetJets, the Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary that bills itself as the world’s largest jet company and sells fractional ownership shares in private business jets.
They swarmed each of the jets in groups of 20 or 30 or more and sat down before the looming machines, there to stay for the next six-and-a-half hours, unmoving, until at last police waded in and started hauling the rebels to jail. Some of the 413 arrests were violent. “There was fear and rage, for the state of the world and for my own future,” said one of those arrested.
Another 800 people gathered for a march and sit-in at the airport’s main plaza, and at least 30 activists blocked the road that serves as the supply route to Schiphol. Every single private jet at Schiphol ended up grounded that day, not merely the 13 that were surrounded.
“The superrich have got used to polluting as they please with a total disregard for people and planet, and private jets are the pinnacle of these luxury emissions that we simply cannot afford,” Jonathan Leggett, one of the activists, told us. “Our action brought them back to earth. We wanted to show the extremeness and injustice related to this manner of transport.”
In other words: a perfectly tailored climate action. Not a highway sit-down ensnaring hapless motorists and keeping cars running, and emitting, longer. Not sit-ins at banks that broker investments in fossil fuels but don’t directly cause their combustion. And certainly not spattering soup on museum art, with its unsettling aura of sullying humanity’s heritage in order to save it.
No, the Schiphol action went for climate change’s jugular: self-indulgent carbon-spewing. It did so balletically, in the democratic and fuel-efficient motion of humans racing on foot or whirling about on bicycles. And ecologically: In the words of one participant, “We made sure that any planes could still land, because the last thing we wanted was for them to be unnecessarily flying for any longer than they already were.”
It was an action that bared the gluttony and entitlement of fossil fuel usage. “Keep it in the ground” protesters confine their blockades to energy supply infrastructure and studiously ignore the demand half of the equation. This has been a shortcoming of the climate movement for too long, as it passes up one opportunity after another to rouse millions against the class that, even more than the corporations of Big Carbon, perpetuates the climate crisis: the world’s wealthy.
Limits of Green Energy
Climate disorder won’t be remedied through an orderly march of green energy. Replacing fossil fuels with a planetary buildout of wind turbines and solar panels, while simultaneously making and plugging in a billion new electric furnaces and vehicles, looks straightforward in a spreadsheet. In truth, though, ramping up green energy alone won’t cut fossil fuel use quickly enough to meet the Paris warming limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius. Supplanting the world’s combustion-based energy infrastructure with an all-electric model will be too lumbering, too roundabout, and too full of its own drawbacks to fully bend the emissions curve in the brief time left.
The world must also rein in consumption. For reasons both symbolic and practical, the climate movement must strike not just at pipelines and mines, but also at obscene wealth.
The justification is unarguable. Large personal fortunes feed carbon consumption and make a mockery of programs to curb it. As well, the surplus wealth of the superrich is probably the lone source of capital that can finance the worldwide uptake of greener energy and also pay for adaptation where it’s most critical.
At the nexus of consumption and wealth sits luxury carbon. Which is why the Schiphol action was so strategic.
Consider that the world’s richest 10 percent account for 50 percent of fossil fuel burning and carbon emissions. Consider that climate reparations, for which the Global South won acknowledgment but little more at last month’s COP27 climate talks, can’t be funded at scale by tweaking wealthy countries’ hidebound taxation-as-usual. Consider that carbon emissions pricing, an indispensable policy tool for shrinking fossil fuel demand, can’t be made politically palatable in the U.S. — even with worthy “dividend” schemes — so long as middle- and working-class families must witness the superrich lording and polluting at will.
As the Schiphol rebels surely know, luxury carbon, like all manufactured desire, is a contagion, oozing inexorably from the sanctums of the few to become desires of the many. Few Americans, and even fewer Europeans, flew in airplanes in 1950. These days, half of U.S. residents fly each year, averaging half a dozen flights each, according to the industry’s annual “Air Travelers in America” reports. As commercial aviation grew safer and more affordable, feeding the increase, business and pleasure travel became normalized.
Today, “general” aviation — private jets, business jets, air tourism — is undergoing a similar liftoff as well-heeled flyers seek refuge, and a status boost, from the indignities of commercial service. And nowhere is private jetting’s carbon waste as blatant as it is in Europe, with its extensive rail network. Per passenger, private air travel is five to 14 times more carbon-polluting than commercial flights, and 50 times more than high-speed rail, according to the European NGO Transport & Environment.
In the Netherlands, 8 percent of the population takes 40 percent of flights. Worldwide, the difference is even more stark: One percent of the population is responsible for 50 percent of pollution due to aviation, making air travel a textbook example of how pollution by the rich leads to consequences and injustices for those who have not caused the climate crisis.
Naysayers will note that the tactic of occupying and disrupting airports has been tried before, as in the case of the Plane Stupid campaign of the 2000s and 2010s. Radicals in the climate movement such as Andreas Malm, who advocates property destruction of fossil infrastructure, point out that Plane Stupid was ineffective in bending the arc of emissions.
“What the Schiphol people needed to do is destroy the airplanes on the tarmac and then destroy the airplane manufacturers,” said an ecosaboteur named Stephen McRae, an acquaintance of one of the authors, who recently completed a six-year prison sentence for industrial sabotage. Although he no longer participates in such criminal acts of destruction, he has a point. The planes grounded on November 5 are already back in the air. That doesn’t diminish the value of what the Schiphol rebels did, however. Actions that disrupt carbon comfort without violence or hardship are morale-building, the material from which more actions and eventually mass movements are made.
A few days after the Schiphol revolt, climate activists under the banner of Scientists Rebellion disrupted operations at private airports in four U.S. states and a dozen other countries, according to a New York Times roundup.
While the Times attributed the rising militancy of scientists to “the increasing clarity of the science,” it was more likely propelled by the impulses that motivated protesters in the Netherlands: rage at a future “thrown away for the profits of a few,” in the words of one Schiphol rebel, and the palpable need “to stand there and know we actually were grounding private jets and … actively stopping this manner of pollution,” per another.
Along with their clarity in targeting the true fountainhead of climate disorder — sybaritic carbon profligacy — what stands out most about the Schiphol action is its organizational breadth and cohesion. On top of the 700 occupying the tarmac and the 800 marching and sitting-in at the main plaza were those “working throughout the day, and in the days and weeks beforehand, in a range of supporting roles,” as one organizer reported, describing legal and media teams, an arrestee support team, and a team of caterers. “The diversity of roles worked to our advantage: There are as many ways to engage with activism as there are people, everyone has their own way of contributing.”
Social solidarity on this scale helped buffer the cruelty of airport police who in some cases “ripped people from their groups and held [them] in painful positions even though they were cooperating,” reported one first-time protester who joined the action as a medic. “What started as a nervous morning ended with a fulfilling and accomplishing situation,” he said. “We did this.”
[Our new page, The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, has much more on the legislation spawned by the Manchin-Schumer deal — what it will and won’t do to emissions, what it means for climate policy, and whether it closes or opens future paths for carbon pricing. — Sept. 1, 2022]
The Nation magazine this morning published my essay, The Manchin-Schumer Deal Could Pay Off—If Congress Acts. I’ve cross-posted it here to allow comments and add graphics for context.
While the deal assiduously, and regrettably, leaves intact the deep, intertwined roots of U.S. fossil fuel dependence, it’s imperative to support it — not just for its beneficial, albeit indirect, impacts on emissions, but because of its potential to materially improve both climate dynamics and political dynamics in the U.S.
Our Comments are open. Let us know what you think.
— C.K., August 2, 2022
The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 will knock out less than 10 percent of U.S. climate pollution by 2030, leaving the nation short of even its whittled-down goal of getting emissions 40 percent below the 2005 level.
Why, then, are many climate activists popping champagne corks? And why should progressives of every stripe do likewise? It’s simple. If the deal between Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin survives more or less intact, it will upend two deeply debilitating narratives: U.S. climate helplessness and Biden-Democratic Party haplessness.
The haplessness first: The legislation should help dispel the aura of fractious Democrats incapable of doing what we elect them to do: deliver big structural change. This turnabout could boost the Dems’ chances of retaining or even expanding control of Congress in the midterms, making possible not just other climate wins but also gains on voting and reproductive rights, economic justice, and the rest of the progressive agenda we hold dear.
The Inflation Reduction Act likewise marks a turning point, at least for the time being, on long-running, world-damaging U.S. climate helplessness. True, modeling by the Rhodium Group found that the legislation will only deliver a 7 to 9 percent carbon reduction relative to ongoing trends—far short of the massive cuts required for the United States to credibly claim global climate leadership. But by letting millions more Americans experience wind, solar, and energy efficiency—not as abstractions but as palpable engines of economic advancement—the bill opens paths to expansive climate gains going forward.
The omnibus legislation also burnishes green energy investments by packaging them with other popular but less threatening reforms such as affordable prescription drugs and higher taxes on big corporations. Not to mention the chef’s kiss of the bill’s name, the Inflation Reduction Act, signaling Democrats’ attentiveness to this year’s hot-button issue.
Admittedly, this is a lot to hang on a bill that doesn’t directly tackle the entrenched, intertwined systems that have long locked in Americans’ profligate carbon consumption: massively overbuilt roads, decrepit public transit, low-density zoning, anti-urban bias, rampant inequality, and artificially cheap fossil fuels. But, to borrow from Auden, such are our low, dishonest politics. No bill addressing even one of those matters was ever going to pass this Congress, with the modest exception of a fee on “excess” methane leaks from oil and gas wells and pipelines, starting in 2024.
Instead, we get three big, complementary though indirect ways to cut emissions: monetary rewards for wind, solar, and nuclear—yes, nuclear—generators that make electricity without burning fossil fuels; bigger tax credits to purchase electric automobiles and accelerate the demise of fossil cars and trucks; and tax breaks for US factories to manufacture those new wind turbines and solar arrays.
If much of that sounds technical, wait till you hear Rhodium explain that the Inflation Reduction Act will let clean-energy developers transfer their tax credits to third parties that “have tax liability and [thus] the ability to monetize the credits.” The 700-page bill abounds with just such tools to crack open long-standing bottlenecks impeding the shift to clean energy.
The legislation also swarms with fossil-fuel concessions, most notably a requirement that the Interior Department auction off more public lands and waters for oil drilling. The Center for Biological Diversity last week labeled that provision a “climate suicide pact … that will fan the flames of the climate disasters torching our country [and deliver] a slap in the face to the communities fighting to protect themselves from filthy fossil fuels.”
Fossil fuel extraction and processing are indeed filthy and toxic. But expanding U.S. leasing will worsen total warming only slightly. Since fuels are fungible, stopping one carbon source leads Big Oil to tap supply somewhere else. Rather, by cutting overall demand for fossil fuels, the Inflation Reduction Act “will make oil leasing less profitable and therefore less widespread,” as UC Santa Barbara environmental politics professor Leah Stokes noted last Friday on Democracy Now. Fewer communities overall will be ravaged by drilling, let alone floods and other climate havoc.
People complaining about the provision in the #InflationReductionAct that allows for more drilling on federal lands have a VERY different counterfactual than I do. It would almost be like me complaining there is no carbon tax in the bill…#ClimateCrisis #ClimateAction
— Christopher Knittel (@KnittelMIT) July 29, 2022
Let’s also credit the Manchin-Schumer deal’s potential to leverage U.S. emission cuts by palliating our global climate disrepute, a point long made by Senator Edward J. Markey (D-MA), who along with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and the Sunrise Movement, is widely credited with elevating the Green New Deal into political discourse. “You can’t preach temperance from a bar stool,” Markey said in 2008, adding last week that “you can’t ask China, India, Brazil or other countries to cut emissions if we’re not doing it ourselves in a significant way.”
While we shouldn’t over-credit the immediate carbon reductions from the Inflation Reduction Act, it’s imperative to close ranks behind it, as MIT climate economist Christopher Knittel urged on Twitter last week: “People complaining about the provision in the Inflation Reduction Act that allows for more drilling on federal lands have a very different counterfactual than I do. It would almost be like me complaining there is no carbon tax in the bill.”
Knittel’s counterfactual, of course, was U.S. climate stasis. Mine was as well, along with Democratic Party squabbling. That may have changed last week. We must make the most of it.
Charles Komanoff, a longtime environmental activist, directs the Carbon Tax Center.
Addendum: The Inflation Reduction Act includes a fee on “excess” methane emissions from oil and gas wells and pipelines of $900 per metric ton of emissions above new federal limits in 2024, increasing to $1,500 per metric ton in 2026. MIT economist Chris Knittel (quoted above) equates the $900 methane fee to $60 per metric ton of CO2, a level that would qualify as a fairly robust nose in the proverbial camel’s tent of carbon pricing.
A New York Times post this week, Biden’s Climate Change ‘Revolution’ Isn’t Coming, caught our attention with its trenchant look at climate policy’s low ebb in the wake of two crushing setbacks in just three weeks: the June 30 Supreme Court ruling blowing up EPA’s carbon-regulating authority under the Clean Air Act, and Joe Manchin’s coup de grace to the remnants of President Biden’s Build Back Better climate package.
Drawing on fellow Times writers, opinion editor Spencer Bokat-Lindell painted an unsparing portrait of U.S. — and global — climate stasis as dangerous heat was enveloping Britain, much of Europe and large swaths of the U.S. Here we reprint his post in full, with our commentary as counterpoint.
Biden’s Climate Change ‘Revolution’ Isn’t Coming.
When President Biden took office, one of the first things he did was make a pledge: The United States, he vowed, would finally “meet the urgent demands of the climate crisis” through “a clean energy revolution.” That revolution was to be set in motion by a $2 trillion plan for putting the country on a path to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035 and to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, in line with the Paris agreement’s goal of keeping global warming well below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above preindustrial levels. (It now stands at 2.2 degrees.)
But after more than a year of negotiations, compromises, deal-making and belt-tightening, that plan appeared to collapse last week when Senator Joe Manchin, a conservative Democrat from West Virginia and a key swing vote in Congress, announced that he would not support funding for climate or energy programs.
What does the collapse of Biden’s agenda mean for the domestic and global politics of climate action moving forward? Here’s what people are saying.
Biden’s Plan, Though Not Revolutionary, Was Bold.
Even a fully intact Biden plan would have fallen short of its goals. Nevertheless, its scope and reach would have far surpassed any climate program by any major nation. Build Back Better’s carbon reductions and climate benefits would have been numerically substantial and would also have triggered parallel policies in other countries.
(Chart is from CTC Sept 2021 post, Without a Carbon Tax, Don’t Count on a 50% Emissions Cut.)
1. The climate deal that wasn’t
As my colleagues have reported, experts generally agree that there are two ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the speed and scale required. The first is making fossil fuels more expensive by ensuring that their environmental costs — global warming, for one, but also the staggering harms of air pollution — are reflected in their price. While widely championed by economists, carbon taxes have proved politically unpopular: A carbon tax by ballot referendum in Washington State has failed twice.
Biden hoped to take the other approach: reducing emissions by driving down the cost and improving the efficiency of low-carbon energy sources, like wind, solar and nuclear power. Initially, the centerpiece of his plan was a clean energy standard, which would have legally required utilities to draw 80 percent of their electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2030 and 100 percent by 2035. But when Manchin — who made millions from his family coal business and took more campaign money from the oil and gas industry than any other senator — pulled his support from that scheme in October, Democrats pivoted to a $300 billion package of tax credits to encourage the adoption of renewable energy and electric vehicles.
Now, both avenues to decarbonizing the country have been all but closed off. Even before Biden’s plan was whittled down, there was some debate about whether it was sufficient to meet his ambitions. But now that the president’s most powerful tools for reducing emissions have been confiscated by Congress (and the Supreme Court, which last month limited the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate power plant emissions), “We are not going to meet our targets, period,” said Leah Stokes, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Santa Barbara, California, who has advised congressional Democrats on climate legislation.
Manchin’s reason for scuttling the negotiations, according to his spokeswoman, was his desire to “avoid taking steps that add fuel to the inflation fire.” But in The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer argues that, in addition to being “extraordinarily bleak for the climate,” Manchin’s reversal will actually worsen inflation: By reducing long-term demand for oil, Biden’s plan would probably have lowered gas prices, and an earlier version of the package would have led to hundreds of dollars in annual energy cost savings for the average U.S. household by 2030, according to an independent analysis from researchers at Princeton.
“America’s climate negligence endures,” Meyer writes. “That is not just due to Senator Manchin’s negligence, of course. It is also the collective responsibility of the Republican Party, whose 50 senators are even more resolutely against investing in clean energy than he is.”
1. The long shadow of Washington state’s failed carbon tax referendum
Bokat-Lindell could have said, about carbon taxes, that they are widely championed by economists and others who judge robust carbon taxing as uniquely capable of delivering big emission cuts quickly. Still, his characterization of carbon taxes as politically unpopular was fair.
He was also on solid ground in pointing to the failed Washington State carbon tax referendum. Perhaps even more than Donald Trump’s concurrent electoral win over Hillary Clinton, the 2016 defeat of Initiative 732 put a hurt on U.S. carbon tax organizing and advocacy. After all, if a carbon tax couldn’t garner an electoral majority in a certified blue state — one with a strong outdoors-nature ethic to boot — it was likely to be a tough sell almost anywhere else.
During the run-up to that vote we published a raft of posts calling out progressive icons like Naomi Klein, Van Jones and Mary Kay Henry for willfully distorting I-732 — labelling as a tax cut for the wealthy its swap of the carbon revenues to cut regressive sales taxes, for example. Their high-profile drive-by opposition also encouraged environmental justice groups to view I-732’s revenue-neutral design as a ploy to block green investments in disadvantaged communities rather than a design to offset lower-income households’ higher fuel expenses. Mainstream environmental groups mostly stayed on the sidelines, as did climate champion Bill McKibben. Their neutrality contributed to the 59-to-41 electoral wipeout which poisoned the well for a Green New Deal-style reboot effort in 2018.
Fast-forwarding to 2021-2022, it’s also fair to ask why climate activists trained virtually all of their fire on Joe Manchin, perhaps not grasping that his personal and political indebtedness to fossil fuels — duly noted by Bokat-Lindell — placed him beyond their reach. As The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer notes, 50 Republicans blocked Biden’s climate package no less than Manchin. Protests in their home states might have moved the legislative needle or at least thrown down a marker to preserve Democrats’ control of Congress in the coming midterms.
2. A domestic defeat with global consequences
Because the United States has spewed more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than any other nation, it plays a uniquely prominent role in global climate politics. (It’s worth noting that on an annual basis, China is now the world’s largest emitter, having surpassed the United States in 2006, though America’s per capita emissions still far exceed China’s.)
Given the United States’ historical “climate debt,” many lower-income countries have made their climate commitments contingent on those of the United States and other rich countries. Especially after Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris agreement, many world leaders were hopeful that Biden would arrive at the Glasgow climate talks last year having secured some legislative achievement as a mark of political seriousness. That, of course, did not happen.
Now, the United States’ international climate credibility is even more damaged, which will in turn impede global decarbonization efforts, The Times’s Somini Sengupta writes. “Manchin’s rejection and the recent Supreme Court ruling dealt a heavy blow to U.S. climate credibility,” Li Shuo, the Beijing-based senior policy adviser for Greenpeace East Asia, told her. It underlines what many people abroad already know, Li said: that “the biggest historical emitter can hardly fulfill its climate promises.”
The U.S. climate envoy, John Kerry, is expected to attend the next round of climate talks, in November in Egypt, but will once again have little to show for it. The United States “will find it very hard to lead the world if we can’t even take the first steps here at home,” said Nat Keohane, the president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an environmental group. “The honeymoon is over.”
2. Goodbye to the myth of U.S. global leadership on climate
We noted upfront that in addition to their sheer numerical weight, Build Back Better’s carbon reductions would have triggered parallel policies in other countries. Bokat-Lindell articulates this well, with framing that, appropriately, prioritizes U.S. climate stewardship as “necessary” rather than merely “sufficient.”
What would translate almost automatically from the domestic sphere to the global is U.S. federal-level carbon taxing. The simplicity of a national carbon price alone makes it child’s play to replicate it in any other country — in marked contrast to the welter of tax credits, rules and line items embodying Biden’s climate plan that would be devilishly hard if not downright impossible to copy elsewhere. Moreover, the logical companion piece to a national carbon tax — a Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism — would powerfully incentivize non-carbon-taxing countries to enact their own in order to capture for themselves carbon tax levies that otherwise would be collected by their carbon-taxing trading partners.
That said, the various stories and authorities cited in the Times column have it exactly right. The heavy weight of America’s outsize cumulative carbon emissions, combined with what now must be seen as chronic federal government inaction — aptly summarized by Greenpeace as (“the biggest historical emitter can hardly fulfill its climate promises”) — expose the U.S. as climate laggard rather than leader.
Unfortunately, that fact didn’t keep U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who once supported carbon pricing via cap-and-trade (see this 2009 op-ed in the New York Times), from uttering this arrant nonsense this week: “I don’t want to be lectured about what we need to do to destroy our economy in the name of climate change.”
3. Where the politics of climate action go from here
The Biden administration will have to rely on its less powerful arsenal of executive actions to make progress on its decarbonization efforts, however short of its initial targets. As The Times’s Coral Davenport explains, the White House could use its regulatory authority to increase vehicle emissions standards, potentially catalyzing the transition to electric vehicles; to compel electric utilities to slightly lower their greenhouse emissions without falling afoul of the Supreme Court; and to plug leaks of methane — an extremely potent greenhouse gas — from oil and gas wells. Biden may also use his pulpit to push for action at the state level, where climate policy has assumed new importance in the absence of federal leadership. “States are really critical to helping the country as a whole achieve our climate goals,” Kyle Clark-Sutton of the clean-energy think tank RMI told The Times. “They have a real opportunity to lead. They have been leading.” Both California and New York, for example, have committed to reaching net-zero emissions by no later than 2050.
As far as national electoral politics are concerned, The Times’s David Leonhardt argues, the fact that a single Democratic politician was able to derail Biden’s climate agenda should prompt Democrats to redouble their efforts to increase their Senate majority, particularly by winning over more voters in red and purple states. “It is clear that many blue-collar voters don’t feel at home in the Democratic Party — and that their alienation is a major impediment to the U.S. doing more to slow climate change,” he writes.
It is also possible that the government’s sclerosis could spur interest in less conventional and extra-electoral avenues to addressing climate change, among them nuclear power (the promise and drawbacks of which have been explored in this newsletter; the “degrowth” movement; speculative technological fixes such as solar geoengineering; and mass movements of civil and uncivil disobedience, as the ecologist Andreas Malm called for in his book How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
As the Colorado River reservoirs dry up, as the death toll from the record-setting heat waves and wildfires scorching Europe rises, and as more than a billion people in South Asia recover from a season of heat extreme enough to test the upper limits of human survivability, “this moment feels interminable,” Meyer of The Atlantic writes. “But what is unsustainable cannot be sustained. If one man can block the industrial development of what is, for now, the world’s hegemon, then its hegemony must be very frail indeed.”
But then, climate change seems to remain a relatively minor concern among the U.S. electorate: Just 1 percent of voters in a recent New York Times/Siena College poll named it as the most important issue facing the country; even among voters under 30, that figure was 3 percent.
That is just one poll. But it would perhaps be premature to rule out another direction the politics of climate change might take, one that could prove familiar to those who have witnessed how the American public has processed other cumulative traumas, like the drug overdose crisis or gun violence or the pandemic: a resigned acceptance of mass suffering, punctuated by moments of shock that serve only as reminders of how the unimaginable became normal.
3. The impasse at the abyss
Bokat-Lindell packed many leads and ideas into his closing section. We’ve touched on a lot of them in the past year.
Our high points:
A. The “arsenal” of potential executive actions is terribly meager vis-a-vis the task at hand. Stronger CAFE standards, for example, are badly undermined by light trucks’ takeover of the automotive fleet, and are assumed in most climate emission scenarios anyway.
B. States-as-climate-loci is also overblown. A full two dozen are solidly red, i.e., fossil fuel dominated. Even in blue states, policy is circumscribed by federal authority and bureaucracy; the holdup of New York’s congestion pricing program by federal highway officials is one case in point. Moreover, visions of 2050 net-zero or 2035 grid decarbonization by California and New York are almost certainly way out in front of actual commitments and have been made needlessly more difficult by nuclear power plant shutdowns.
C. Securing a true Democratic Senate majority and retaining the House this November are indeed vital.
D. Like Andreas Malm, we believe that direct action in defense of climate and earth needs to come to the fore, as we proposed in two posts last summer inspired by Malm’s book: Christopher Ketcham’s essay, Let’s Blow Up Luxury Carbon, and my own “Rich people cannot have the right to combust others to death.” Both are worth your attention.
E. The low primacy of the climate crisis among voters is both real and arguably not fatal. The U.S. is beset by so many crises that even so committed a climate scientist as Peter Gleick declared this week his greater alarm over incipient fascism.
A greater cause than insufficient ardor of the U.S. failure to enact “revolutionary” or even strong, incremental climate policies is an unproportionate and cumbersome political system that puts up multiple roadblocks to systemic change.
Alas, that isn’t poised to change. More and more, it looks like achieving genuine climate action will require passionate and creative direct action. Targets abound: helicopter commuting, crypto “mining,” obstructionists of wind farms or dense housing or congestion pricing, to name a few. Successful actions will be those that harness broad-based and truly intersectional campaigns attacking not just emissions but privilege and wealth.
We have an idea or two up our sleeve. Perhaps you do as well. We wish you luck. We still insist that carbon taxing is revolutionary — how can tackling a fundament of fossil fuel dominance be otherwise?
(As published today in NYC-based Gotham Gazette. Footnotes appear at end. — C.K., May 13, 2022)
Like time in Steve Miller’s classic-rock song, New York’s decarbonization targets keep slipping into the future.
Highway widenings are spurring more driving. Suburban resistance to upzoning is locking in energy-demanding sprawl. Electricity from the state’s wind turbines shrank last year,1 even as climate advocates, relying on dodgy U.S. Energy Department modeling, overstate future carbon reductions from “electrifying everything.”2
Promising developments like offshore wind leasing and new transmission to carry hydroelectricity from Quebec barely compensate, if at all, for carbon emissions unleashed by closing the Indian Point nuclear plant. As I have pointed out elsewhere, shutting existing zero-carbon power sources means that new ones don’t actually cut emissions; at best, they keep us running in place, punching huge holes in pledges to achieve a carbon-free power grid by 2040.
To this dreary picture, add crypto mining — enormous networks of electron-eating computers running 24-7 so that digital currencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum can maintain virtual “coins” or “tokens” in encrypted ledgers that bypass traditional third parties like banks.
From Buffalo and the Finger Lakes to the state’s northern tier, crypto entrepreneurs are building new generators or firing up retired ones to power their crypto mining operations. Other crypto sites draw on the grid.
Self-sourced or not, the requisite electricity ends up forcing additional burning of fossil fuels, as Sierra Club researchers documented in extensive comments this week to the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, pushing the state’s ambitious decarbonization goals further out of reach. To what end?
In Uber’s Footsteps
Enigmatic, opaque, futuristic — crypto-currency cries out for historical analogues. Here’s one: Uber.
Uber burst on the scene in the early 2010s not as a new form of transportation but a new kind of network enabling a reconfiguration of transportation. Its appeal was tailored around three promises: it would enhance traffic efficiency by eliminating cruising for fares; it would extend convenient for-hire vehicle service outside Manhattan; and it would end service refusals to people of color.
The packaging — sleek and app-enabled — augured a frictionless, digital future. With a few taps New Yorkers could summon a chariot.
The results were mixed. We now know that stockpiling of Ubers in Manhattan has wrought even more gridlock than taxi cruising. But Uber did broaden access to for-hire vehicles, even as it bled ridership from the MTA and, worse, rained economic ruin on the incumbent yellow-cab industry.
Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies come with their own glossy promises, though these are more chameleon-like. (Earlier this year New York Times columnist Paul Krugman disparaged them as “word salad.”) Among them, as Annie McDonough reported recently in City & State, is the prospect of liberation from ingrained discriminatory banking and lending by U.S. financial institutions.
“[Crypto backers] see the technology as an economic equalizer,” writes McDonough. “A tool not just for the rich to get richer, but for people who have been discriminated against by banking institutions or locked out of investment opportunities, including people of color and low-income communities.”
Really? In New York, and almost certainly anywhere else, unbanked households overwhelmingly lack the requisite credit history or liquid assets — bank accounts, debit cards, credit cards — to purchase cryptocurrency tokens. Moreover, scammers and grifters are finding crypto fertile territory for high-tech swindles, as New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo noted this month. An arguably safer and more effective way to root out credit segregation would be to speed Biden administration rulemaking to add teeth to the Community Reinvestment Act — the 1977 law intended to repair decades of redlining.
The emergence of crypto-front groups like the National Policy Network of Women of Color in Blockchain demonstrates the industry’s readiness to exploit deep-seated bitterness over legacy redlining. So does the participation in crypto lobbying of Bradley Tusk, the one-time Mike Bloomberg consigliere who a decade ago deftly deployed Black fury over persistent taxi discrimination to help Uber eradicate cabbies’ exclusive right to pick up street hails in Manhattan and subsequently helped fend off serious regulation of the app-ride industry for several crucial years.
Let’s Burn Up The Grid
There is no registry of electricity consumed by crypto mining in New York State. Worldwide, though, crypto burns through an estimated 91,000 gigawatt-hours (or, 91 billion kilowatt-hours) of electricity annually, according to a New York Times survey of crypto last September. Some 16% of that, or 15,000 GWh, is said to be consumed in the United States.
While New Yorkers are accustomed to thinking of our state as resource-poor, crypto miners are now exploiting half-a-dozen hydro power sites and formerly boarded-up fossil-fuel plants in northern and western New York. One industry source cited by City & State estimates that 13-14% of his company’s U.S. crypto mining takes place in our state. Extrapolating that share across the industry, crypto is annually consuming 2,000 GWh of electricity in New York State — a figure that could grow not just with increased transactions but with ever-more complex digital encryption.
Even holding at 2,000 GWh, that’s a lot of juice: more than the electricity generated last year from all the solar panels on residential buildings in the state, or more than what will come from the first 100 promised offshore wind turbines once that industry launches (see graph below). And, though crypto in New York consumes less electricity than all current solar or wind, that comparison is of no comfort, as those renewable sources need to be displacing fossil fuels (primarily fracked gas) from the state’s grid — which they can’t do if their output is effectively being consumed mining Bitcoin.
The operative word, “effectively,” encompasses two distinct but complementary dynamics. Grid dynamics dictate that any new locus of demand such as Bitcoin forces utilities to draw more heavily on fossil-fuel generators, because the non-carbon sources — nukes as well as renewables — already run as flat-out as they can. The climate dynamic is that from a statewide perspective, additional use of fossil-fuel generators negates the carbon-reduction benefits that wind and solar and nuclear would otherwise provide.
This perspective casts a harsh light on claims that a particular crypto installation is being renewably sourced. Connecting crypto to a refurbished hydro dam or solar or wind farm may sound green, but all those whirring hard drives are really siphoning off carbon-free electricity that now “won’t be available to power a home, a factory or an electric car,” as the Times’ 2021 story put it. (One hopes that the irony of crypto adherents miscounting green electrons doesn’t carry over to their currency bookkeeping.)
Carbon Tax vs. Crypto?
A stiff New York State carbon tax could slow and even reverse the rise of cryptocurrency here (likewise nationwide).
The rise in electricity prices would undermine whatever competitive advantage Bitcoin miners gain from locating in New York. Some miners would leave, new ones would stay away, and those who stay would endeavor to blunt the impact of the tax by upgrading their efficiency.
Not only that, crypto miners seeking zero-carbon generation increasingly would find themselves competing with non-crypto businesses seeking to contain their power costs. Other businesses, less power-intensive per dollar of revenue, would be in position to outbid the crypto companies.
The prospective flight to other jurisdictions could help build momentum to tax carbon emissions there as well, as more states and countries come to conclude that crypto jobs and revenues aren’t worth straining their grids, not to mention trashing their air-sheds and stealing their quiet.
This isn’t to hold out carbon taxing as a one-bullet crypto killer — we need many bullets for that, the bigger the better — but to illustrate its broad potential to stop frivolous (and in this case imbecilic) new uses of electricity before they can gain a foothold.
Why not regulate crypto away? That battle would consume years, tying down policy resources while emissions continued to spew. Worse, we have neither the time nor the ability to see around corners required to enact, piecemeal, restraints on each new locus of energy demand.
Even as energy-efficiencies continue to do wonders — total U.S. electricity use last year was just a few percent higher than in 20053 — underpriced electricity elicits new hellspawns of needless use that undo much of that progress.
Carbon taxes by themselves can’t solve everything that ails climate. But they could, for a change, get the solutions out in front of the problems.
Charles Komanoff, long-time New York policy analyst and environmental activist, directs the Carbon Tax Center. On Twitter @Komanoff.
1US Energy Information Administration, “Electric Power Monthly,” Table 1.14.B, “Utility Scale Facility Net Generation from Wind,” shows 4,522 GWh in New York State in 2020 and 4,387 GWh in 2021.
2To estimate future carbon reductions from the December 2021 New York City ban on gas heating and cooking in new buildings, the law’s proponents and the Dec. 15, 2021 New York Times story reporting on it both cited a Dec. 10, 2021 post, Stopping Gas Hookups in New Construction in NYC Would Cut Carbon and Costs, by the consultancy RMI. The RMI authors note that their calculations employed future electricity grid emission factors modeled by U.S. DOE’s National Renewable Energy Lab’s “Cambium” dataset. Examination of that dataset reveals, inter alia, that it assumes a non-existent five-fold increase in New York State on-shore wind-generated electricity from 2020 to 2022.
3Figures from US Energy Information Administration, “Electric Power Monthly,” Table 7.2a Electricity Net Generation: Total (All Sectors)” supplemented by Table 10.6 (“Electricity Net Generation from Distributed Solar”) indicate total U.S. electricity generation of 4,164,565 GWh in 2022 and 4,055,785 GWh in 2005. For those interested, the implied compound annual average growth rate over those 17 years is a minuscule 0.17 percent.
Correction: This post was amended on May 26 to reflect the fact that New York’s estimated 13-14% share of U.S. crypto mining applies to a single crypto company rather than industry-wide. The extrapolation to other companies is the author’s, not the source’s.
May 16 addendum: We strongly recommend How crypto made me fall in love with carbon pricing all over again, an April 27 essay by Frontier Group energy analyst Tony Dutzik covering the intersection of crypto mining, carbon pricing, energy demand and Jevons Paradox.
The Nation magazine today published my essay, The Climate Movement In Its Own Way. I’ve cross-posted it here to allow comments and offer context.
The new piece calls on progressives in the climate movement — a bulwark of the magazine’s readership — to move beyond ideology and make the climate movement more pragmatic and holistic by supporting carbon pricing.
In introducing my April 4 post, I wrote:
[This post] implicitly embodies a hope that my willingness to examine my own deeply-held convictions in a new light may encourage others to do likewise with their own climate dogma. Reconsideration of ideologically-based objections to carbon pricing by self-proclaimed progressives would be a good place to start.
Consider today’s post an explicit expression of that hope.
— C.K., April 30, 2022
PS: The new post had to be shoehorned into a tight word count. The version below restores a half-dozen phrases cut from the version in The Nation.
The Climate Movement In Its Own Way
After decades of critically documenting nuclear power’s outsize costs, I finally admitted to myself that the carbon benefits from continuing to run US nuke plants are substantial, and in some respects irreplaceable. I made the case for keeping them open in an April article on TheNation.com.
Closing New York’s Indian Point reactors last year was a climate blunder, I wrote. Not just because fracked gas is now filling the breach, but because the need to replace the lost carbon-free power means that new wind and solar farms won’t drive emissions down further. California, facing the same equation, should shelve its plan to shutter the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in 2024, I said.
“Total bullshit,” a lifelong anti-nuker wrote me. “You should be ashamed.” More representative of the comments, though, was this: “Continued reliance on nuclear power going forward now is part of the price of our collective past failures.”
Amen. The failures propping up US carbon emissions are multiple. Not just Senator Joe Manchin, who torpedoed President Biden’s Build Back Better clean-energy legislation. Not just the Senate Republicans, any one of whom could have cast the critical 50th vote. And not just Big Carbon, whose dark money and disinformation perpetuate climate inaction.
Through its own poor choices, the climate movement is failing as well.
Too many of our climate campaigns are ill-considered. Too much of our legislative agenda is narrow-gauged. Too often, our lens for assessing climate proposals is ideological rather than pragmatic.
Consider the decade-long campaign to induce pension funds and banks to divest their fossil-fuel holdings. Exxon-Mobil’s share price wobbled for years, but since early 2020 Exxon’s stock has risen faster than the market average. Is Big Oil shamed and starved for new capital today? Not with roaring demand for oil and gas. US motorists’ insanely over-powered, super-sized vehicles account for about a tenth of worldwide petroleum consumption. Yet challenges to American motordom come mostly from outgunned cycling and transit campaigners, not the climate movement.
Now, with most federal action blocked, climate activists sought and won a ban on gas heat in new buildings in New York City, though they failed in their first push for a statewide ban.
The drive to “electrify everything” is laudable, given that electricity can be decarbonized whereas gas furnaces and stoves cannot. Yet trying to take the ban statewide elbowed aside bolder ideas, such as legalizing accessory dwelling units and stopping highway widenings.
To be sure, not everyone is ready to admit that fatter highways and pastoral, exclusive suburbs are carbon disasters. But only broader campaigns can link climate to other pressing concerns like homelessness, housing unaffordability, costly gasoline, and traffic violence.
The granddaddy of US climate failures, of course, is the absence of the one policy that economists believe could unlock the vast emissions reductions needed to meet the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius: national carbon taxation.
A straightforward “price on carbon” — administered not via easily gamed cap-and-trade schemes but through “upstream” levies on the carbon content of fuels — was once thought appealing to left and right alike. It is now abjured by both.
The right, of course, is both repellently all-in on fossil fuels and hyper-aware that its wealthy base of profligate carbon consumers would pay the most through a carbon tax. Which makes the left’s antipathy to carbon taxes not just surprising but downright bizarre.
This hesitation has multiple strands: seeing carbon pricing as another contrivance of the predatory capitalism that built white wealth off the land and labor of Indigenous and African-descended peoples; suspicion that carbon pricing lets polluters avoid reducing local emissions by purchasing “offsets”; a misplaced conviction that carbon pricing in California has worsened disproportionate pollution burdens on disadvantaged communities; and excessive faith that a regulatory approach can untangle the multiple strands that enforce fossil-fuel dependence.
Economic models abound to show how fast carbon taxes will shrink the use of fossil fuels. Models aren’t life, but they agree broadly that a robustly rising federal tax could, within a decade, dial back US emissions by about a third.
To turn our backs on carbon reductions on that scale is, I believe, suicidal.
Our worsening climate stalemate led me to abandon my silence as existing nuclear power plants were extinguished. A similar rethink on carbon taxes by progressives won’t win over climate denialists. In time, though, with a more far-sighted left ascendant, it could become a stepping stone to climate progress.
Charles Komanoff, a longtime environmental activist and expert on nuclear power economics, directs the Carbon Tax Center.
The Nation magazine this morning published my essay, The Case Against Closing Nuclear Power Plants. I’ve cross-posted it here to allow comments and offer context.
The piece had its genesis in a more expository post I published in 2020 in the NYC-based Gotham Gazette, Drones With Hacksaws: Climate Consequences of Shutting Indian Point Can’t Be Brushed Aside. In that essay, I dismantled the assurances of reactor-shutdown advocates that bountiful infusions of efficient and renewable energy will take the place of the nuclear-powered Indian Point plant’s carbon-free electricity. The problem wasn’t simply the slow rate at which new green energy is being added, but that when green energy sources must replace a standing power source that itself replaces fossil fuels, their effective climate value is zero.
I believe my essay in The Nation is noteworthy on several grounds.
First, it adds the weight of my long experience questioning nuclear power’s economic viability to a Feb. 1 letter from climate pioneer Jim Hansen, Nobel laureate and former U.S. energy secretary Steve Chu, and 77 other distinguished personages to California Gov. Gavin Newsom that, in effect, urged the state to avoid duplicating, on the West Coast, the grievous error of shutting a similarly questionably-sited reactor complex (Indian Point) on the East.
Second, the essay advances a more systemic view of the climate consequences of extinguishing extant zero- or low-carbon energy facilities whose operation is already keeping fossil fuels in the ground and carbon emissions out of earth’s atmosphere.
Third, it implicitly embodies a hope that my willingness to examine my own deeply-held convictions in a new light may encourage others to do likewise with their own climate dogma. Reconsideration of ideologically-based objections to carbon pricing by self-proclaimed progressives would be a good place to start.
— C.K., April 4, 2022
The Case Against Closing Nuclear Power Plants
On a bright spring day in 1979, before thousands who were propelled to Washington, D.C., by the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown, I pronounced nuclear power’s rapid expansion disastrously unaffordable. My remarks drew on years of work chronicling reactors’ skyrocketing capital costs.
Forty-three years later, in February, in the wake of the failed Glasgow climate summit, I wrote to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, urging him to defer the planned shutdown of the state’s last nuclear plant. Closing Diablo Canyon, a Reagan-era complex near San Luis Obispo, would damage the state’s climate leadership as it strives toward zero-carbon energy, I argued.
I sent my letter just days before Vladimir Putin’s tanks rolled into Ukraine and thrust nuclear power back in the news, in typical ambiguity.
On one side are legitimate fears that Russia’s seizure of the giant Zaporizhzhia reactor complex in southern Ukraine, the largest in Europe, and the stricken Chernobyl plant in the north, near Belarus, could precipitate massive releases of radiation.
On the other is the stomach-churning awareness that Germany’s reactor closures over the past decade deepened its dependence on Russian gas, helping keep the Kremlin supplied with Western cash while slowing its own progress to climate-safe energy.
In America, meanwhile, the nearly one hundred nuclear plants that have ridden out the post-Three Mile Island cancellations and post-Fukushima shutdowns operate under the radar, their climate and pocketbook benefits taken for granted. It’s time we paid attention.
Electricity rates in New York City were jackknifing even before Russia’s assault on Ukraine. The blame is falling on spiking prices for fracked natural gas. Left unsaid is that, as in Germany, the closure last year of the area’s lone nuclear plant, Indian Point, is making utilities draw more heavily on the very gas-fired generators whose costs are spiraling. Also largely unremarked, amidst hosannas over wind and solar power’s falling costs, is the halting pace at which green power is actually filling the breach, belying promises by “safe energy” advocates who helped engineer Indian Point’s closure.
Worse, it is illusory to say that by ramping up renewable energy and energy-efficiency we can pick up the climate slack from closing Indian Point. Why? Because with climate chaos bearing down, every green-energy addition needs to bring about the demise of equivalent fossil fuels. If those additions replace a standing power source that itself replaces fossil fuels, their climate value is zero.
These considerations dim the glow from last month’s record leases for ocean wind farms off Long Island and New Jersey. The need to make up for Indian Point’s energy output will nullify half or more of the hoped-for 7,000 megawatts of offshore wind, badly undermining the legislative commitment to rid the New York grid of carbon emissions by 2040.
On the opposite coast, the twin Diablo Canyon reactors have for decades provided 2,200 megawatts worth of round-the-clock climate benefit by obviating the need to draw on fossil fuel generators. Shutting them down by 2025 will relegate California’s next 7,000 megawatts of renewables and efficiency (the higher figure is from differences in operability) to stand-ins for Diablo’s lost climate benefit.
The deficit won’t be transitory. Not until every kilowatt on the West Coast comes from zero- or ultra-low-carbon sources can Diablo’s canceled climate benefit be considered superfluous. Until then, the California grid will continuously emit more carbon than it would with Diablo operating.
That moment is approaching but it remains far away. According to data from the US Energy Information Administration, 50 percent of California’s electricity still comes from burning carbon fuels. Hearteningly, this share is 12 points less than it was in 2015, with most of the carbon shrinkage coming from increased solar-photovoltaic supply. But that solar rise, amounting to more than 15 billion kWh annually, is no greater than the amount of carbon-free electricity that shutting Diablo Canyon will take away (17 billion kWh a year, based on 2016-2020 production).
We cannot assume that California’s next solar wave will replace Diablo’s climate benefit, for the simple reason that those solar gains are counted on to push out fossil fuel-burning in buildings, vehicles, and the state’s power grid.
I can hear the objections. Diablo Canyon needs to run at full bore, whereas demand fluctuates. But any excess output can be put to use recharging the millions of batteries California is adding to anchor its grid. Diablo lies atop an earthquake fault. But much of its huge sunk cost went for unprecedented seismic protection that the plant’s owner, Pacific Gas & Electric, failed to budget. (I know this from serving as an expert witness for the California Public Utility Commission’s Division of Ratepayer Advocates in the 1989 proceeding that barred the company from fully recovering its cost overruns.) Guarding Diablo against mishaps or malfeasance takes money. But going forward, the cost of staffing and fuel will be much less than the climate damage its operation prevents.
As an energy-policy analyst, advocate, and organizer for fifty years, I have fought for bicycle transportation, congestion pricing, wind farms, and carbon taxes, in large part to reduce the destructive imprints of coal, oil, and gas.
The climate crisis has exploded ahead of schedule, not as distant warnings but as actual fires, floods, and the global sea-level rise. Meanwhile, Diablo and other US nuclear plants long ago shed their teething problems to become solid climate benefactors, faithfully churning out electricity without combusting carbon fuels.
Others can debate whether to build new nuclear plants to combat the climate crisis. But no one can deny that letting existing reactors like Diablo Canyon remain in service keeps fossil fuels in the ground and their carbon emissions out of our atmosphere. We ignore that benefit at our peril.
Komanoff, author of the treatise Power Plant Cost Escalation, represented New York State and California consumer agencies in opposing rate hikes to pay for reactor cost overruns in the 1970s and 1980s.
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Note: The day after posting this, I talked about my Nation article with Left Business Observer’s Doug Henwood on his weekly podcast. (My part starts at 30:18 and goes for a little over 20 minutes.) The conversation is lively and adds further context to the importance of and rationale for continuing to run functional U.S. nuclear power plants.